Saudi Arabia's King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz arrived in Washington yesterday for a five-day state visit that will give Americans a glimpse of modern-day Arabian nights.
There will be plenty of caviar, limousines and official talks on arms sales and peace in the Middle East. What there won't be plenty of is alcohol, an official head count and Saudi women. There are plenty of men, but an American official said the State Department may never know just how many are in Fahd's entourage.
Preceded by two smaller Saudi passenger jets at Andrews Air Force Base yesterday, Fahd's huge 747 was 10 minutes late pulling up to the red carpet, where Secretary of State George Shultz and a cast of hundreds waited. That "cast" included American and Saudi officials and the entire Arab diplomatic corps. With one exception, the official welcoming committee included no women. The exception was U.S. Chief of Protocol Selwa Roosevelt.
Fahd was whisked by helicopter to Washington, where a motorcade picked him up for the rest of the trip to Ambassador Prince Bandar's palatial McLean estate overlooking the Potomac.
"Prince Bandar is obviously well equipped to take care of him," said a State Department official working on the visit. "Frankly, I don't think we have a hotel that's good enough."
The rest of the Saudis are staying at the Hay-Adams. There are 12 in the official party, which means the State Department pays for their expenses. The 12 are, however, only a fraction of Fahd's entourage -- you don't need three planes for 12 people, even in Saudi Arabia.
Fahd did not bring a wife, nor did any of his traveling companions. The explanation for the absence of women, according to one Saudi source: "Because it's an official trip." Even Prince Bandar's wife, Princess Haifa, will not attend the White House dinner or the dinner the king gives two nights later.
The absence of women is the kind of thing that matters over at the White House, where questions of seating are not taken lightly.
"It's an opportunity for creativity," said White House social secretary Gahl Hodges.
The Muslim prohibition against alcohol presents another challenge. Alcohol will be served at the White House tonight, but the customary champagne toasts will be replaced with nonalcoholic "after-dinner remarks."
Guests listening to the remarks will include the usual assortment of stars, including Pearl Bailey, the Smithsonian's new secretary, Robert McCormick Adams, architect Michael Graves, former Treasury secretary John Connally, "Dallas" star Linda Gray, real estate magnate Donald Trump, New York City Ballet head Peter Martins and comedian Joe Piscopo.
The Saudis will bring Fahd's 11-year-old son, Abdul Aziz, who will join his father at Nancy Reagan's table.
Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballe' will sing. Fahd, it seems, likes classical music.
Over the next few days, Fahd will meet with Reagan and other officials, and his son will sightsee. Then on Wednesday, Fahd will have about 600 people to dinner at the J.W. Marriott.
"This is the ultimate dream for a catering operation," said Marriott catering director Mohammed Ihsan. "The detailed planning -- plus the tremendous money that went into it!"
Ihsan wouldn't be specific about the money. "A great deal of planning and a great deal of money" was all he would say.
Bandar has been meeting with Ihsan for about six weeks, discussing decorations, tasting food, approving tablecloths (in the official Saudi colors of gold and green) and palm trees.
"We're creating an oasis in the ballroom for the king," said Ihsan. "You'll find hundreds of palm trees. The royal seal will be in flowers -- 12 by 12 feet -- behind him."
During the reception, Fahd will shake every hand. From the royal handshake, guests will move on to the palm trees and fountains installed for the evening and an assortment of hors d'oeuvres.
"You have your baba ghannoug," said Ihsan. "You have your hummus. You have your stuffed grape leaves. You have the falafel made to order. You have the pounds and pounds of shrimp. I mean, it's a huge sculpture of shrimp in the room.
"There will not be any liquor served. There will be about seven different types of mineral water. There will be smoothies -- the frozen fruit drink. It's all blended and mixed to order in the room, fresh. Fresh-squeezed juices -- guava, orange juice, grapefruit, tomato, mango, pomegranate.
"The vegetables are being flown in from California," said Ihsan. "The amounts of caviar -- we've never experienced such tremendous amounts of caviar. I wish you could see the file on this event -- how large it is."
The dinner will include more caviar, a main course of veal and a dessert of orange, raspberry and chocolate mousse and baklava. After that, each table will receive a box made of chocolate and filled with truffles and chocolate-covered strawberries, among other sweets.
"If a person wants to take it home, he can," said Ihsan. He wouldn't speculate about what will happen if two people at the same table both want to take their box home.
And when all of this is over, when the palm trees have been appreciated, the baba ghannoug enjoyed, the talks talked, it should be time for a flood of Saudi thank-you presents, right?
"If so, then we have to spend hours on forms sending the gifts over to the GSA, if the gift costs more than $140," said a State Department official. "We tell them, 'Please, only a photo. And no frame.' Can you imagine what a Saudi frame would be like?"